Corner Office

A conversation with ‘Boss Hog’

Kai Ryssdal Aug 8, 2006


SCOTT JAGOW: Time now for our series, Conversations from the Corner Office. Harley-Davidson has been making motorcycles for more than 100 years now. It’s based in Milwaukee. Harley’s one of those companies that sticks with what works. Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal sat down with the Boss Hog, CEO Jim Ziemer.

KAI RYSSDAL: You’ve been riding Harley-Davidson since you were 15 years old. You grew up, near as I can tell, pretty much around the corner from this place. Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that you’d be running Harley-Davidson one day?

JIM ZIEMER: No, in my wildest dreams, I started when I was 8 years old when I used to watch the test riders burn rubber as they took off and I got all excited and I said, someday I want to get paid to ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

RYSSDAL: You were the CFO of this company for 14 years, you’re an accountant. How come you got to run the place?

ZIEMER: Good question, but out of my 37 years here, I started in the union. I worked in the factory as a salaried worker. I’ve worked in engineering. I’ve worked in parts and accessories. So with that balance, I think that’s given me the ability to go much beyond just being an accountant.

RYSSDAL: Do you think that gives you some credibility when you go down to the shop floor?

ZIEMER: There’s no doubt. We’ll joke around with the union presidents that they saw the same posting for an elevator operator, which I was a freight elevator operator, that maybe the should’ve posted for it so yes we have a pretty god time. I think it does add to the credibility.

RYSSDAL: These are great days for Harley-Davidson. It hasn’t always been that way. I’m thinking now back to the early and mid-’80s when this company was almost gone.

ZIEMER: That’s a great story. I mean, back in 1981, there was a leverage buyout. Prior to that this company was owned by a conglomerate. They didn’t really understand the company. They certainly weren’t close to the customers. Quality was not what it should be. And we had some very stiff competition from the Japanese. In fact, at that time the Japanese had flooded the market and there was basically a two-year supply of Japanese motorcycles in warehouses all around the US. Plus the economy was taking a dive. A lot of things were not going right. And after the LBO, you had some dedicated managers of the business that loved the business, understood the business. We were reinvesting in the product, improving the quality and we got back to our roots, and it was a very good way to go forward and improve the business.

RYSSDAL: Seems to me sort of the same thing is happening in Detroit now.

ZIEMER: A lot of their troubles do stem back from a long period of time ago, being comfortable where there were, on top, not looking at what if things changed. It gives us a great example of continuing to look at our business and giving us motivation to continue to change things that we’re doing and not get complacent.

RYSSDAL: I’d imagine when you want to unwind you hop on your Harley and go for a long ride somewhere in the countryside. What else do you do to get away from this place?

ZIEMER: Well No. 1, sticking with the riding Harley-Davidsons. I mean that is a great stress relief. Other than that though I like to be outside. I like to garden, I like to hunt and fish and I like play with my grandkids.

RYSSDAL: Jim Ziemer is the CEO of Harley-Davidson. Mr. Ziemer, thanks a lot for your time.

ZIEMER: Thank you, it’s been a great pleasure.

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